October 23, 2014

Road commission ending winter with salt to spare

Dealing with rising costs, flat budget

Posted

ARENAC COUNTY — The Arenac County Road Commission has seen a reduction in salt usage over last year due to weather conditions and a more reserved strategy of salting roads, Superintendent Blair Dyer said.

“Salt usage is actually down a little bit this year, partly because we changed how we did our salting,” Dyer said. “We tried to cut back a bit more and watch the weather a bit closer, but also we had a couple free months. December and January were pretty snow-free, so a lot of it depended on the weather.”

While the county had a relatively little salt left over from last winter — approximately 1,000 tons — Dyer said they are contractually obligated to purchase at least 70 percent of a full allotment, which he bases on how much the road commission used in previous years and how much their salt bin holds. The county did order that minimum in the standard two allotments, Dyer said, adding the county’s salt bin is not big enough to hold all of their needed salt at once.

“We have to play the market,” he said. “We don’t have a big enough bin, but if I could, I would order earlier for the whole winter, as it is cheaper than getting a second order.”

Fortunately, Dyer believes there should be plenty left over for next winter, provided the area is not hit with an unexpected snowstorm. So far, the weather has been cooperating with a slow, steady thaw, aside from a hiccup a week ago when temperatures hit the 50s along with rain. With leftover salt, Dyer said the county will not need to order as much next year, and can hopefully save some money.

Saving money where they can is vital to the road commission, he said, as the amount of funding it has gotten through Michigan Transportation Funding (MTF), or the gas tax, has remained flat since 1998. Meanwhile, costs have continued to climb, due in part to inflation.

Dyer said the road commission’s budget this year is $2,328,921. Back in 2000, he said it was $2,374,402, adding that the amount bounces around a little bit but remains largely flat. The state also gave the road commission $600,200, but Dyer said that is earmarked for specific projects the state tells them to do.

On the expense side of things, he said salt has gone up in price substantially since 2000, when it was $20.67 per ton. He said the county’s last order of salt was $59.64, about a 188-percent increase since 2000.

Chip seals for cracks in the road have also gone up from 69 cents to $2.58 per square yard between 2000 and 2013, while the cost to blade dirt roads flat has gone up as well. Dyer said it used to cost $4.38 per linear foot, but has now gone up to $14.48 per foot.

He added the cost of gravel, paving, and asphalt have all shot up as well, with asphalt increasing from $22 per ton to $52.75 over the same time period, drastically reducing the amount of work the county can do.

“Our labor costs in 2000 were 38 percent of the MTF,” Dyer said, “In 2012, it was 34 percent, so it went down. We were at our high back in 1998 at 42 percent with a full force, so we’ve reduced our labor costs.”

“This is why the road commission is asking for more gas tax (money),” he added. “It’s not mismanagement of our money, it’s just inflation.”

This is a problem the Michigan Department of Transportation is facing as well as all the local municipalities, Dyer said. He said Arenac County has stopped purchasing new trucks for its road commission fleet, and hasn’t bought a new one since 2009. Rather, it has gone after used trucks from other road commissions that are in better shape than the ones in the county’s fleet.

“If expenses go up but revenues are flat, you have to cut some things,” Dyer said. “We’re getting by, but people don’t realize that’s why it seems like things are slowing down.”

“We all use the roads, but someone’s got to pay for it,” he added.” Something’s going to need to be done sometime. The inflation rate will continue to go up, so something’s got to change.”

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